When local police arrived in riot gear to evict the Vuon clan, family members were ready with homemade land mines and improvised shotguns. In a guerrilla-style ambush reminiscent of a Vietnam War battle, they wounded six officers.
However, instead of drawing public condemnation, last month’s rare violence by fish farmers trying to hold onto leased land in the northern port city of Hai Phong has made a national hero of family ringleader Doan Van Vuon and ripped open a debate about heavy-handed seizures by local governments.
Though Vuon and three of his kin remain under arrest for their role in the attack, retired military generals and a former president have weighed in on his behalf.
The case has attracted so much attention that Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung ordered an investigation, ruling on Friday that the eviction was illegal and those who ordered it should be punished. He also encouraged local authorities to renew the family’s land lease.
Many Vietnamese see Vuon as a symbol of the country’s millions of farmers, many of whom are fed up with losing property or anxious about how new land rights laws will affect them as the government debates 20-year land grants that are due to expire next year.
Vuon stands accused of organizing the attack and trying to kill police, but state-run media have openly sympathized with him in investigative reports. Their dispatches have alleged that Hai Phong officials lied about details of the eviction. They also have said the family was cheated in 1993 when they were given a lease of only 14 years instead of what should have been 20 years.
Nguyen Thi Thuong, Vuon’s wife, remembers returning home from dropping her kids at school on Jan. 5 to find a mob of armed police in riot gear surrounding her farm house. She heard gunfire and explosions erupt before ambulances rushed in and medical workers began carrying wounded officers out on stretchers.
“Our family was cornered,” Thuong said by telephone. “We put all our efforts and money into our farm, but the authorities evicted us without compensation. It’s very unjust.”
Even before the standoff, Vuon’s neighbors considered him a local celebrity.
The college-educated agricultural engineer spent 18 years and his life’s savings turning 40 hectares of useless coastal swampland into a viable aquaculture farm. His daughter and nephew drowned in the process, but he pushed on and eventually built dykes capable of protecting the coastline from tropical storms.
Vuon, 49, had long been at odds with local authorities, and some legal experts say his 14-year grant agreement was illegal from the start. State media have reported that the surrounding area was slated to be developed for housing and an international airport.
Vuon and fellow farmer Vu Van Luan filed a lawsuit in 2009 challenging the proposed land seizure. Luan said the court had agreed to let them stay if they dropped the suit. However, when they did so, the eviction order went ahead anyway.
That is when Vuon allegedly planned the attack on more than 100 police and soldiers. According to media reports, he was not at the scene when the violence erupted. The farmer and several members of his family are now under investigation for assault or attempted murder.
After the raid, two houses on the family’s land were burned and bulldozed, forcing Vuon’s wife to take shelter under a plastic tarp. Local officials first took responsibility for the destruction, but later denied involvement — fueling rage among many following the case nationwide who have vented their frustration online.
In Vietnam, all land belongs to the state, but sweeping economic reforms in the 1980s led to the 1993 land law that offered conditional 20-year land grants to many farmers. Legal experts say those leases will likely be extended when they expire next year, ensuring farmers quasi-private usage rights.
However, other questions hover over clauses in Vietnamese law that allow authorities to seize land for national security or defense, economic development or the public interest.
In some cases, that translates into highways or industrial parks that bring jobs to the poor. However, in an increasing number of cases, it means grabbing fish farms or rice paddies for swanky golf courses and resorts only accessible to the rich.
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